Review: ‘The Forbidden Room,’ featuring Mathieu Amalric and Charlotte Rampling, is thoughtful and silly at the same time

Ariane Labed in a scene from"The Forbidden Room."
(Kino Lorber Inc.)

The many films of the silent and early talkie eras that have been lost to the ages are enough to make a movie lover weep. Or at least wonder. Into the breach steps dream-meister Guy Maddin, resurrecting a few ghosts in “The Forbidden Room,” a jokey, hallucinatory melodrama that takes its title from a lost 1914 short by Allan Dwan.

Maddin has joined forces with four writers, including co-director Evan Johnson and poet John Ashbery, to create lurid glimpses of missing chapters in cinema history. Fans of the Canadian director will know to leave narrative expectations at the door and go with the spiraling flow as the action moves from a submarine to Oracle Bones Hospital to a train bound for Bogota from Berlin — just a few of the phantasm-charged settings.

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Stories fold within stories and back again, some more intriguing than others but all tenderly crafted to reproduce such decayed antique surfaces as hand-tinted monochrome and two-strip Technicolor. Title cards announce, in a potpourri of typefaces and insistent misspellings of “volcano,” such plot developments as “Squid Theft!” and “Escapee!!!”


The sound design and score are as rich and layered as the visuals. Some characters speak their dialogue; others rely on intertitles. The international cast is up to the task, conveying big emotions in a way that recalls old movie tropes but still feels modern. Geraldine Chaplin brandishes a whip, Charlotte Rampling swigs laudanum, Mathieu Amalric inhabits an “elevator apartment,” and Maria de Medeiros is an absurdly gullible mother.

There’s also a dead father (Udo Kier), a mysterious woodsman (Roy Dupuis) and a kidnapped insomniac (newcomer Clara Furey). Mythical shape-shifters called aswangs show up as ghoulish bananas. Leotards secrete soul-corroding poisons. Doppelgängers abound. And, most delightfully, imperiled sailors use flapjacks as a source of oxygen, necessity being the mother of invention.

What Maddin & Co. have invented here ranges from Freudian horror to childish naughtiness. Moving in “ever-widening circles” — to quote the bath instructional by Ashbery that frames the film — this exercise in beauty, derangement and memory can be contemplative or silly. Often it’s both, in just the right proportions.


‘The Forbidden Room’

No rating

Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes


Playing: Arena Cinema, Hollywood